Catastrophization

It seemed like the end of the world was coming and everything was out of control. Was it a collective Chicken Little moment? Or was the sky really falling?


I glanced expectantly at my social media feeds, ready to see something uplifting, get good news about some long-lost friend, or maybe just catch a funny dog video. Instead, I found pictures of disasters and fundraising appeals. Another of my regular feeds had belligerent partisan sniping about global warming, reproductive rights, and some noise only young people can hear. My final “go to” source, the one I loved for cute pictures of kittens and corny cartoons, was filled with images of violence and destruction.

Illustration by David Rosenman
Illustration by David Rosenman

The internet appeared imbued with a sense of impending doom. It seemed like the end of the world was coming and everything was out of control. Was it a collective Chicken Little moment? Or was the sky really falling? It was the government, economy, ecology. It was North Korea and the Middle East. It was even Rochester, Minn. It all seemed too much. The end of the world was coming, or maybe it wasn't. Either way I had to get to work.

All these thoughts in mind, I strolled into the hospital to cover a general medical service. As I waddled down the hallway, an old R.E.M. song went through my brain like an earwig.

It's the end of the world as we know it

It's the end of the world as we know it

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

I really did feel fine. I was healthy and felt like my career was on track. My family was doing well, my romantic life was satisfying, and I had submitted an article to a major journal. Everything was coming together quite nicely.

A nurse practitioner with whom I frequently worked came up to me. She asked if I had tried the new cafeteria food. She was aghast. It was terrible, a tasteless travesty, an indigestible disaster. We would be starving at the end of our shift. She'd turn to candy, gain 30 pounds, and have to buy a whole new wardrobe that she could not afford. How could they serve this to us? I told her it would be fine, and as soon as the new company settled in, the cuisine was bound to improve. She walked away in dismay, sadly shaking her head.

Not long afterward, I encountered a physician colleague whose usually impeccably ironed white lab coat was unbuttoned and stained. He pitifully moaned and said that the new electronic medical record system was killing him. He could not even figure out how to do a simple hospital admission. He'd have to retire, to quit, to walk away and never come back. It was too hard to learn and he was too old.

I found someone wearing a purple baseball cap, one of the medical record trainers circulating around the hospital. I asked the purple-hatted gentleman to spend some quality time with my colleague explaining how to admit a patient, how to navigate the new system, even how to sign on. He readily agreed, but my physician friend still sat dejectedly in front of the screen, immobilized with medical record despair.

I still hadn't seen a patient, yet I was beset with one complaint after another, a veritable catalogue of catastrophe, a cornucopia of cataclysm, a concretion of calamity. A physical therapist faced an insurmountable mountain of consults. A nurse noted the lack of handwashing solution: A patient would get infected, probably with MRSA and VRE. And my administrative partner, usually the Rock of Gibraltar, quivered pitifully as he told me the water in the toilets had turned purple and they would surely have to close the hospital.

It seems they had all become obsessed with disaster. Every minor issue had become a tragedy; the hospital had become plagued with catastrophe! I told the therapist that I would try to cancel some consults, the nurse that I knew where there were cartons of handwashing solution, and my administrator that the purple water was just from staff disposing of the horrible grape juice the new food service was providing.

I scolded them all to stop catastrophizing. Everything would be just fine if they could avoid nonproductive anxiety. I reminded them that etymologically a catastrophe originally meant “a sudden turn,” as in a play.

The shift ended. The planet still turned in space. I whistled as I walked down the hallway.

As I left, I glanced at my phone. There was a note from my paramour; she was breaking up with me, by text! There was a voicemail from my daughter telling me she was dropping out of dental school to pursue her dream of being a tattoo artist. I looked at my stock portfolio; it had plummeted. My pager went off—my doctor had my test results and wanted to schedule a colonoscopy. And then there was an email from The Journal. My article had not only been rejected, they also pleaded that I not submit a revision. I stumbled out of the hospital, tripping on the steps and twisting my ankle. My car had a flat, and I had no spare. And there was a parking ticket on it. And it was booted.

My intern walked by me and smilingly informed me that everything would be OK, that I should stop feeling like everything was a disaster, that it would all work out in the end.

That song came back into my head again. It's the end of the world as we know it.... but I wasn't feeling that fine after all.